Richard Nisley

A Movement Led By Ministers
History - American Released - Sep 04, 2017

Anyone who knows John Lewis, or is familiar with his role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, is aware that this is no ordinary person. Lewis is a man of undeniable integrity and inner strength, who triumphed over unspeakable brutality. He was beaten many times, and arrested and jailed 40 times for no other reason than standing up for his rights as an American citizen. What makes him unusual—as with many who partook in the Movement—is that he forgave his attackers–not partially, but completely and whole-heartedly. “We were consciously aware that unity was our ultimate goal, and if that was truly our aim, we had come to grips with the fact that after all the warring was done, reconciliation, love, and forgiveness would have the final say.” Lewis is living testament that love triumphs over hate.

Lewis’s book, ACROSS THAT BRIDGE (2012), discusses what it was like to be brought up in the Deep South in the days of Jim Crow, of being the son of a poor share cropper, of barely getting by, living on hand-me-downs, attending second-rate schools, seeing his father whom he loved and respected being referred to as “boy” and ordered around whenever he set foot in town. Living such an existence was more than degrading, it was dehumanizing. It tried to rob people of their self-worth, their self-respect, and their dignity as human beings. The people Lewis grew up with were impoverished, yet “these people were actually rich,” he says, “rich in character and rich in faith. They may have been denied the most basic material resources, but they did not lack the drive.”

Hearing a speech on the radio by Martin Luther King Jr., encouraged Lewis to join the Civil Rights Movement. “(King) was preaching about the responsibility of Christians to respond to the injustices of segregation,” remembers Lewis. “He was delivering the message I had prayed to hear.” Further on, Lewis writes: “It was no accident that the movement was led primarily by ministers—not politicians, presidents, or even community activists—but ministers first, who believed they were called to the work of civil rights as an expression of their faith.” King and others, including Lewis, studied the power of nonviolent resistance as practiced by Mohandas Gandhi and adopted into their faith.

“We not only had grown together as we discovered the transformative power of nonviolent resistance, but we had risked our lives to see its truth manifested before our eyes.” Protest marches, sit-ins, freedom rides drew the rage of Southern whites who attacked with billy clubs, lead pipes, rocks, bricks, and attack dogs, to no avail. “After the initial fear, each protest became an exercise in freedom instead of a cause for alarm.”

Among the many marches that drew the nation’s attention, the most significant was the march from Selma to Montgomery. The focal point, as it turned out, was the horrific violence reigned down on the marchers as they attempted to cross Edmund Petus Bridge. “We were silent,” says Lewis. “Just six-hundred of us walking in quiet persistence. To me, it felt like a holy march. . . . I had made peace with the understanding that if I died on that bridge, I would have offered my life in contribution to an effort that was larger than myself.” They didn’t make it across the bridge that day, but would a few weeks later. The 600 peaceful protestors would grow to 10,000 by the time they reached their destination, Montgomery, the capital of Alabama.

Among the chapters in the book is one entitled “Patience.” Among the subjects is The National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. From its inception until the time of its creation, exactly 100 years elapsed. The setbacks were many, and the project was thought dead many times, but persistence and patience—lots of patience—and at last the museum opened its doors in 2015. As fate would have it, Lewis, elected to Congress in 1986, played a significant role in seeing the project be restarted, properly funded, designed and built. “Patience is a guiding light in all the work of change,” says Lewis.

The following are a few quotes that struck me as significant while reading this book:

“Faith, to me, is knowing in the solid core of your soul that the work is already done, even as an idea is being conceived in your mind.”

“We had nothing to prove. Our worth had already been established before we were born. Our protests are an affirmation of this faith, and our belief that we could never be separated from the truth.”

“We in the movement decided to actualize our belief that the hatred we experienced was not based on any truth, but was actually an illusion in the minds of those who hated us.”

“Our approach was not passive, as some believed; it was uncompromising.”

“(E)very change in the world starts within. It begins with one individual who envisions his or her micro-universe the way it can be, and settles for nothing less.”

“Being willing to withstand their rage, to serve as a reflection in which they could see themselves, was actually an act of compassion and love that helped release millions of white Southerners from the burdens inherent in the work of hate.”

“Darkness cannot overcome darkness, only light can do that. Violence can never overcome violence, only peace can do that. Hate can never overcome hate, only love can do that.”

This is a beautiful book. It’s proof positive that there is an active moral force in the universe guiding the hearts of those willing to listen—and willing to act.

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